The battle for the southern Philippine city of Marawi continues, and may even be widening, but military officials had one piece of good news to offer on Monday: According to other hostages, the Catholic priest kidnapped by Islamic State militants is still alive.
“We got information from evacuees rescued last Sunday from conflict-affected barangays that Father Chito is still alive but is a virtual captive. The information is being checked now,” said Lt. General Carlito Galvez of the Western Mindanao Command, as quoted by the Philippine Star.
Father Teresito “Chito” Suganob was kidnapped by fighters from the ISIS-aligned Maute group during the sudden and unexpectedly vicious attack on Marawi on May 23, along with several staff members and parishioners of his church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Help of Christians. The church was burned down by Islamic State forces.
The Philippine Star notes that the attack occurred during the feast to celebrate the patron saint of the church, Mary – an especially unpleasant touch and probably not an accidental one, given the history of the Mary Help of Christians order.
Ft. Suganob has not been seen by the public since the Islamic State released a propaganda video on May 31st, in which the captive priest was forced to plead for his life and the lives of other hostages, begging Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw his forces from the Marawi area.
CNN reported on Monday that casualties in the battle for Marawi are the worst the Philippine military has experienced in recent history: 66 soldiers dead so far, plus dozens more injured. Several deadlines imposed by government and military officials for ejecting the last ISIS militants from Marawi have come and gone, but at least a hundred of them are said to remain holed up in the city.
A Philippine soldier wounded in the battle told CNN the militants holding Marawi are much better trained and organized than previous insurgents in the region, having apparently imported combat tactics from the Islamic State’s battlefronts in Iraq and Syria. Analysts cite the Islamic State’s ideology in the article as the glue holding a dozen Islamist insurgent groups together in an unprecedented alliance.
Of course, the militants have suffered extensive losses, as well. Philippine commanders on Monday said they have received “validated reports there are leadership problems” in the occupied areas of Marawi, along with communications problems, supply shortages, and a lack of ammunition. As with the sieges of ISIS-held cities in Iraq and Syria, there have been reports of Islamic State commanders executing their own soldiers for cowardice.
Military officials also believe the alliance between insurgent groups is crumbling, with some of them decidedly less eager than others to stand their ground and fight government troops for control of Marawi.
Philippine forces declared a “humanitarian pause” on Sunday to coincide with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. The pause ended with a rescue mission that was able to secure the release of six civilians from Marawi.
One of the lingering questions about the battle of Marawi is the fate of the man who started it, insurgent leader Isnilon Hapilon. Hapilon, who commands the notorious insurgent group Abu Sayyaf, was reportedly named “emir” of the Islamic State’s Philippine holdings. He called for help from other insurgents when he was targeted by a Philippine military operation in May, precipitating in what became the capture and occupation of Marawi.
The Australian reports that while Hapilon’s status and location are unknown, and he might have slipped away from Marawi early in the battle, the Philippine military believes it has killed two other key figures: Omarkhayam Maute, leader of the Maute organization, and terrorist financier Mahmud Ahmad, who is one of the most wanted men in Malaysia.